If you were to base the average hunter success off of my Facebook feed this fall, you'd most likely assume that most hunters kill bucks that score roughly 194 inches. I can safely say that's not true, and if one were to dig into it they'd find that most bowhunters kill exactly zero deer during any given season.
The success rates show this as well, with most archery seasons ending up at anywhere from 15- to 30-percent success. This means that in good states, seven out of every 10 hunters slurp on a big bowl of tag soup as the season ends.
Part of this is self-imposed for many of us, who go into the season with some level of standards for what it takes to be a trophy. I do that as well, but I'm also getting pretty sick of the trophy focus in the deer world. Don't get me wrong, I love big antlers. I really do, and I love the bucks that wear them on their heads. But they aren't the only deer in the woods, and quite frankly, the little guys and the ladies are full of my favorite meat and can be pretty dang challenging.
So, while the focus tends to be on mature bucks, there is nothing that says you can't go on a meat mission in the late season. I do every year, and what I realize is that killing any deer after the bulk of the bow season is in the rearview mirror (as well as the various firearm's seasons) is no easy task. I always believe it will be, and then I trudge out in the snow and the cold to hang a stand and arrow any deer, and reality usually smacks me upside the head. Late season, without a phenomenal spot to hunt is difficult, really difficult.
Any success for me usually starts with scouting.
Where They Are Now?
We all know we are supposed to hunt quality food sources in December, but what if you're property doesn't contain a sweet food plot or picked cornfield? I walked a small property like this near my home in the Twin Cities recently, and realized that instead of focusing on food, I needed to focus on bedding.
Our wetlands are some kind of wet right now, and the typical late-season bedding areas are under water or at the very least, probably not too comfortable to lay in. This means that the deer (at least the deer I saw and the deer that left the sign I looked at) are bedding in whatever high ground they can find. I hung a stand where two trails intersect next to an overgrown thicket that is the result of a windstorm a few years back.
There isn't a good food source within 500 yards of the spot, but the deer are bedding there because it's the next-best option from their typical lowland spots. It will also provide me an excellent chance to play the wind and observe - two things that are extremely important when trying to fill your freezer. It'll also allow me to hunt mornings, which food-source hunting typically doesn't. I like that.
A lot of bowhunters are obsessed with seeing which bucks made it through the blaze-orange gauntlet. Me, I'm more into seeing who is around at all. Heavy hunting pressure in my area means I don't get too hung up on seeing if certain bucks made it through because an awful lot of them don't.
Instead, I try to figure out what deer are left. Period. This means bucks, does, and fawns. A lot of times I find myself hunting doe groups in the late-season that might be a single family, or maybe two families banded together. When I find them, like I did while scouting recently, I spend some time trying suss out their travel patterns and get on top of them. This might mean hanging another stand or three, but it's worth it because honestly, they are the only deer I've got left to hunt. What makes this even more interesting, is that if I blow them out of the 29-acre parcel by hunting the wrong wind or getting spotted, my chances go way downhill.
Sounds a bit like trophy buck hunting doesn't it?
About six years ago in northern Wisconsin I was sitting in a treestand freezing my tail off with a buddy of mine. We were filming for the fun of it and I had a doe tag left, so our focus was on any antlerless deer. As the sun dipped and the temperatures cooled toward the zero-degree mark, a lone doe fawn trotted down the ridge and stopped at 15 yards.
She didn't make it out of sight and was absolutely delicious, not-too-mention the drag was awesome. I try not to shoot button bucks, but doe fawns are definitely on my hit-list when late-season rolls around as are any legal deer I've got tags for and the mood strikes. This is a fun way to hunt after a season of thinking about antlers, and it opens up a world that many bowhunters have forgotten about.
Hunt for a deer that you want to eat, take a good shot, and apologize to no one. That's my late-season motto, anyway.